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The World’s Wit and Humor: An Encyclopedia in 15 Volumes. 1906.

William Hayes Ward (1835–1916)

Introduction: Humor in Classic Literature

HUMOR is human, and therefore universal. People of every race laugh; they appreciate, in their own way, what is fantastic. Their idea of a joke may be very rude, but it exists. It may show itself in amusement at the contortions of the victim of savage cruelty, or it may delight in the grotesque exaggerations of Japanese outline, or in the delicate shading of an unexpected phrase in a bishop’s sermon. But somehow, in every race, Bushman or Chinaman or Englishman, humor is always, everywhere, recognized and enjoyed.

The earliest drawings on Greek vases show the playfulness as well as the serious purpose of the artist-potter. The first and greatest of Greek poets adds strokes of wit to his stories of the Trojan war. When Ulysses returns from the siege of Ilium he stops at the island of Sicily, and he and his companions are caught by the one-eyed giant Polyphemus and imprisoned in his cave. Then comes the story of the crafty leader’s escape, after some of his companions had been slain and eaten by the monster. It is a most amusing story, told with all Greek humor, how the giant was blinded with the burnt stick which gouged out his eye while in a drunken sleep; how the Greeks escaped through the entrance by clinging under the bodies of his sheep, while he felt of them one by one to see that not a Greek escaped. Then comes the giant’s howling call to his distant companions, and in answer to their question, who had blinded him, his telling them that “Outis” (Nobody) had done it, Outis (Nobody) being the name Ulysses had given the giant as his own. “If nobody has done it,” replied his companions, “then it is the act of the gods,” and they left him to endure his loss. Thus the Greeks escape to their ships and taunt the monster as they flee away, followed by his vain pursuit. Homer relieves the wisdom of Ulysses and the dignity of Agamemnon with the gibes of Thersites or the rude humor of the suitors of Penelope, the trick of whose embroidery is itself an amusing story.

The Greeks were the maddest, jolliest race of men that have ever inhabited our planet. As they loved games and play, they loved the joke. Plato says that when the Graces sought a temple that would not fall, they found the soul of the comedian Aristophanes. Just as the medieval architects put the most ridiculous and hideously laughable gargoyles on their most sacred cathedrals, so mirth and revelry and all pasquinade were wedded to the worships of the Greek gods. Bacchus was the god of wine and mirth, and was worshiped with the sport of bacchanals. It was in the Bacchanalia that Greek drama had its origin, first comic. There was the representation in carts and processions, in the Dionysiac festivals, of everything that could be conceived of as bizarre and ridiculous. The players clothed themselves in animal forms, so that the very name of tragedy comes from the goat or satyr; while the name of comedy comes from the band of roistering strollers. The players stained their faces with the dregs of wine, until Thespis invented horrible masks.

Gradually the tragedy became more serious, but it had its origin in the farce. The perfected Greek drama still gave superior honor to the coarse humor in which it originated, for it required the trilogy, composed of a tragedy, a comedy, and a satire. Comedy consisted largely in abuse, ridicule, and parody even of the most sacred things. In three of his plays that have come down to us Aristophanes made sport of the Jingoes of his day. In others he ridiculed women’s rights and social theories, which had as many advocates then as now. He did not hesitate to travesty and mimic the greatest teachers and poets of his day. Euripides was thus travestied in one of his comedies; and in the “Apology” Plato puts into the mouth of Socrates the statement that the populace had been prejudiced against him by the ribald jests of the comic poet.

But the extravagances of the comedies became so slanderous that laws were enacted to curb them, especially as political liberty began to be restrained. In the new comedy personal and political attacks were forbidden, under the rule of Philip; and Menander was the founder of a school which set up imaginary characters representing familiar vices; and from this new comedy Latin comedy had its origin. But yet the gods were not protected from abuse, so that the Church father Arnobius could charge his contemporaries with making laws to protect men against abuse, but not the gods. “With you,” said he, “only the supreme gods are unhonored and despicable, vile; against whom, with you, any one who writes may utter shame, and may cast any abuse which his invention has imagined or devised.”

It cannot be said that Latin literature shows much original humor, although Cicero was called “Scurra Consularis,” the “Consular Jester.” The lively humor which we meet frequently in Homer is lacking in the “Æneid” of Vergil. It is hardly amusing when Ascanius finds the unexpected key to an oracle as they are “eating their tables.” There is satire enough in Horace and his successors, but it is more bitter than witty. The “Odes” of Horace, incomparable as they are, yet are not fairly humorous; and the same is true of the “Eclogues” of Vergil. Pretty much all the humor of Latin literature is, like its philosophy, borrowed from the Greek. Thus Ennius and Plautus and Terence translated or copied the Greek models of Menander, retaining often even the names of the characters, just as Vergil in his “Eclogues” followed Theocritus.

But satire found a congenial home amid the extravagance and ostentation of Roman life. In art it showed itself in the abundant caricatures which we find in the decorations of Pompeii, as where we see Æneas pictured, leading his son and carrying his father on his shoulders; but the three are put into ridiculous attitudes, with the heads of dogs, evidently a travesty on some famous painting. Ennius was the father of Roman satire, followed by Terence, and in succession we have the satires of Horace, Lucretius, Juvenal, and Persius. Suetonius tells us that Caligula ordered a poet to be burned in the middle of the amphitheater for a scurrilous verse; but in the time of Nero there was a full return to the early unchecked license, as is seen in the writings of Petronius and Apuleius.

Plato was right when he declared the agelastoi (the laughless) to be the least respectable of mortals. The sense of humor is the saving element which adds common sense to blank seriousness; and no people ever had so much humor, genius, and common sense as the Greeks.